The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. In the aftermath of the Civil War, this amendment banned slavery in the United States, ending a barbaric system that had been legal in America for well over a hundred years. Four million people, an entire eighth of the U.S. population, was freed as a result.
The Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves in many states nearly three years prior, but the Proclamation was officially a wartime measure, not a formal law. Unlike the Thirteenth Amendment, it did not guarantee the total abolition of slavery.
Finally free, former slaves struggled to adjust to living in freedom with their former owners as neighbors. Many freedmen required education previously denied to them, including basic skills such as reading and writing. African-Americans also began migrating to other parts of the country, including the North and the western frontier, in pursuit of greater opportunity.
Though the Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery in the United States, it did not give citizenship to African-Americans, nor did it give African-American men the right to vote. These gains were not accomplished until the passage of the other Reconstruction amendments, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, in 1868 and 1870, respectively.
Below is a collection of resources recognizing this crucial piece of American law. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Selected online resources on the Thirteenth Amendment:
The National Constitution Center offers a collection of introductory essays by top liberal and conservative legal scholars that give overviews of Thirteenth Amendment as agreed upon by both authors, as well as separate brief statements of these scholars’ disagreements about the law’s interpretation.
The Library of Congress has amassed a variety of resources on the Thirteenth Amendment, including primary documents from the time of ratification and related exhibitions and websites.
The University of Maryland has shared selected documents from the volumes of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation online. The transcriptions (or, in a few cases, images) of originals are housed in the National Archives of the United States and have been transcribed exactly as written, with no correction of spelling, punctuation, or syntax and no editorial supply of absent punctuation. The documents include letters between a couple separated by war, military orders, and resolutions of Congress, among others.
Harper’s Weekly was one of the most widely read journals during the Civil War era. HarpWeek, an organization that has indexed all of Harper’s Weekly, has a webpage devoted to the journal’s coverage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The primary source materials on the site include editorials, stories, illustrations, cartoons, as well as documents from key political and military figures of the time. Additionally, HarpWeek has added an annotated timeline, biographical sketches, and a glossary of terms.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment or its history and interpretations, and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.